José Olivarez


Poet. Educator. Performer



José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants. His debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, was a finalist for the PEN/ Jean Stein Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. It was named a top book of 2018 by NPR and the New York Public Library. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. In 2019, he was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. In 2018, he was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association and named a Debut Poet of 2018 by Poets & Writers.

José is a master teaching artist. As part of his #GenteficationWorldTour, he visited 20 different states in the fall of 2018 in support of his debut book, Citizen Illegal. He has taught poetry workshops and performed at community organizations, high schools, book fairs, and universities all over the country including the Adirondack Center for Writing, Lincoln Center, The Metropolitan Museum of New York, The National Museum of Mexican Art, Arizona State University, and The Miami Book Fair among many others. He is a part of of Costura Creative, a Latinx owned & operated talent agency representing contemporary poets & writers for speaking engagements, readings, workshops, multi-disciplinary collaborations & more.



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My Family Never Finished Migrating We Just Stopped in the New York Times Magazine (originally published in the Adroit Journal)

Mexican Heaven & My Family Never Finished Migrating We Just Stopped on The Adroit Journal

Five Truths and a Lie About Paxton Avenue on Chicago Magazine

Maybe I Could Save Myself By Writing on Medium

I Wake In A Field Of Wolves With The Moon on The Shallow Ends

Hecky Naw on Cosmonauts Avenue

Mexican American Disambiguation on Hyperallergic

I Walk Into Every Room and Yell Where The Mexicans At on's Poem-a-Day

now i’m bologna on’s Poem-a-Day

(citizen) (illegal) on the Poets House Website

my therapist says make friends with your monsters on The Rumpus

ode to cheese fries on The Chi Dispatch

The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted Into Grad School on Belt Magazine

Two Poems on Vinyl Poetry and Prose

summer love on Brooklyn Magazine

ode to a summer dress on The Wall Street Journal

Bulls vs. Suns, 1993 on Specter Magazine

Three Poems on The Acentos Review

World's Fair 2008 on The Acentos Review



Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship Announcement

The New York Times

Poets & Writers Debut Poets 2018 Feature

The Paris Review


CBC’s q

WBEZ’s Worldview

The Poetry Foundation Interview with Britteney Black Rose Kapri

WBEZ’s The Morning Shift

Chicago redeye

Hooligan Magazine

The Cornerstore Podcast

The Creative Independent with Jessica Hopper

National Endowment For The Arts

Adelante Chicago on WGN TV

The Download with Justin Kaufmann

The VS Podcast 

Vocalo Radio

Habitat Magazine

Chicago Creatives

AirGo Radio

Keep The Channel Open

Rhymes & Reasons

Creative Kin

The Conversation: José Olivarez & Nate Marshall







Citizen Illegal

In this stunning debut, poet José Olivarez explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. He paints vivid portraits of good kids, bad kids, families clinging to hope, life after the steel mills, gentrifying barrios, and everything in between. Drawing on the rich traditions of Latinx and Chicago writers like Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks, Olivarez creates a home out of life in the in-between. Combining wry humor with potent emotional force, Olivarez takes on complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and immigration using an everyday language that invites the reader in. Olivarez has a unique voice that makes him a poet to watch.

Citizen Illegal is right on time, bringing both empathy and searing critique to the fore as a nation debates the very humanity of the people who built it.” —Eve Ewing, author of Electric Arches

Citizen Illegal is a fearless, instrumental, honest collection of poetry. In other words, the book is fire.  Skilled, tender, funny, yet undecorated, Olivarez’s poetry navigates the razor sharp duality and utter contradiction of citizenship. These poems helps us carry the weight of biases, the absurdity of our prejudices; they help us seek documentation for our humanity which cannot, by any means, be dictated by policy makers. Let it be said that these poems are also love poems. Olivarez chooses to use his voice, sometimes brutal, sometimes bloody and blistered, to confront our monstrosity, yet he never shies away from love, even when he exposes the lies we keep in order to live. Keep an eye out for José Olivarez: he might be the poet you need when it’s time to cross a line, destruct borders, and still come out on the other side with your dreams intact.”
—Willie Perdomo, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon

Citizen Illegal is a stunning piece of artwork from beginning to end. A vivid journey on José’s real life experiences which open-heartedly allows you to discover many of the things people don’t often talk about: love, anxiety, fear, and hopefulness. This book is inspirational and culturally rich, giving you all types of feelings with first hand insight on what it feels like to be Latino. Poets like José and books like Citizen Illegal are essential to our community.”
—Luis Carranza, poet & member of Young Chicago Authors 2017 Bomb Squad

“When I read this book, I can hear José reading these poems out loud to me, into a microphone, in conversation. There is not one time that I read his collection that I didn’t cry. I cried of joy, of sadness, of just seeing and feeling the printed celebration and exploration of what it means to be a first-generation Mexican-American. If and when I need to be reminded of the love I have for being a first generation Mexican American, I am able to turn to these moments in this collection: a neighborhood in which we can be as open and loud and soft as we want to be. In this neighborhood, I can also find all the deafening shame and heart- breaking fear my family and I have tried to hide. José pulls this love and this family and these secrets onto a platform we, as a community, can celebrate, acknowledge, laugh, and cry juntitos. Muchísimas gracias a José por siendo tan valiente y integro. Llevaré estas poemas conmigo por siempre.”
—Victoria Chávez Peralta, poet & member of Young Chicago Authors 2017 Bomb Squad

Critical Acclaim

An New York Public Library Best Book for adults of 2018

An NPR Great Read of 2018

"Jose Olivarez’s indispensable debut poetry collection, “Citizen Illegal,” is a boisterous, empathetic, funny-yet-serious (but not self-serious) celebratory ode to Chicanx life in the contemporary United States."

-Kathleen Rooney, The Chicago Tribune

"It seems clear that Olivarez wrote from every part of himself to build this incredible book. He uses the tools of his craft to create a sanctuary for others, and to present alternative realities that might finally serve, rather than pillage from, brown and black people."

-Frank Johnson, The Rumpus

“José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection, Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018), is a poetic assault on these state and cultural processes that continue to stamp out empathy and humanity within the rise of today’s migratory drift and its management by the state.”

-Chris Campanioni, The Brooklyn Rail

“Citizen Illegal acts as an oasis for acceptance and resistance—an ode of gratitude for in-between spaces.”

-The Arkansas International

Citizen Illegal is not only a commentary on timely and complicated  issues of race, immigration, and ethnicity, but also a celebration, a journey toward a self and a family identity that is grounded not merely in geography but in the veined map of the heart.”

-Donna Vorreyer, Rhino Reviews

What does being a citizen really mean, living in a brown body? And even if you do adopt more Westernized practices, how does that change how brown bodies are viewed in a white society? Olivarez exposes and dismantles these constructions slowly throughout his chapbook, brick by brick. With a searing precision, he takes aim at the American paradigm and how “folding” oneself to fit into it is fruitless.

-Arielle Gray, Afropunk

“This collection is for those of us who are still seeking an identity but are also very aware of what it is. It’s for those of us who don’t see a difference between being a citizen and an “illegal” because we are a mixture of both. His poems are filled with wit and have absolute relevance in today’s political climate.”

-Angie Flores, The Gate Newspaper



The Breakbeat Poets

Hip-Hop is the largest youth culture in the history of the planet rock. This is the first poetry anthology by and for the Hip-Hop generation.

It has produced generations of artists who have revolutionized their genre(s) by applying the aesthetic innovations of the culture. The BreakBeat Poets features 78 poets, born somewhere between 1961-1999, All-City and Coast-to-Coast, who are creating the next and now movement(s) in American letters. 

The BreakBeat Poets is for people who love Hip-Hop, for fans of the culture, for people who've never read a poem, for people who thought poems were only something done by dead white dudes who got lost in a forest, and for poetry heads. This anthology is meant to expand the idea of who a poet is and what a poem is for.

The BreakBeat Poets are the scribes recording and remixing a fuller spectrum of experience of what it means to be alive in this moment. The BreakBeat Poets are a break with the past and an honoring of the tradition(s), an undeniable body expanding the canon for the fresher.


Fall 2018

  • Thursday, 9/13/18: Citizen Illegal Book Release Party with:Nate Marshall, KAINA & Sen Morimoto, Victoria Chavez Peralta, Luis Carranza, Britteney Black Rose Kapri, Eloisa Amezcua, Hanif Abdurraqib, Jus Love, Defcee, and Kevin Coval. Sounds by DJ Ca$h Era. Merch to purchase by Mercedes Zapata and Sentrock. @ National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W 19th St (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Friday, 9/14/18: Niles West (Skokie, Illinois)

  • Wednesday, 9/19/18: Citizen Illegal Book Signing hosted by The Gate News (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Thursday, 9/27/18: Lewis University Reading with Nate Marshall (Romeoville, Illinois)

  • Wednesday, 10/3/18: A/V Exchange @ House of Blues (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Thursday, 10/4/18: Si Se Puede Conference @ Lewis University (Romeoville, Illinois)

  • Friday, 10/5/18: Women & Children First with Britteney Black Rose Kapri (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Tuesday & Thursday, 10/9/18 & 10/11/18: Little Village and Lawndale High School (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Thursday, 10/11/18: Wisconsin Book Festival (Madison, Wisconsin)

  • Friday-Sunday, 10/12/18-10/14/18: Southern Festival of Books (Nashville, Tennessee)

  • Wednesday, 10/17/18: Westinghouse College Prep (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Friday, 10/19/18: Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, Indiana)

  • Saturday, 10/20/18: Lit And Luz Festival @ The Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Sunday, 10/21/18: Danny’s Sunday Series with Emily Yungmin Joon & Tim Kinsella @ 1951 W Dickens Ave (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Wednesday, 10/24/18: Irvington Vinyl & Books (Indianapolis, Indiana)

  • Sunday, 10/28/18: Barbara Ballinger Lecture @ Oak Park Public Library (Oak Park, Illinois)

  • Monday-Wednesday, 10/29/18-10/31/18: Arizona State University (Tempe, Arizona)

  • Saturday, 11/3/18: Chicago Humanities Festival with Jessica Hopper (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Tuesday, 11/6/18: Northeastern Illinois University (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Thursday, 11/8/18: Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan)

  • Tuesday, 11/13/18: Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)

  • Wednesday, 11/14/18: College of Lake County (Grayslake, Illinois)

  • Saturday & Sunday, 11/17/18-11/18/18: Miami Book Fair (Miami, Florida)

Bring José to your Campus/ Org/ School


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